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Blog Podcast interview with Mary Humphrey

Podcast interview with Mary Humphrey

Blog Podcast interview with Mary Humphrey

Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast.

I’m delighted to be joined by Mary Humphrey, a social photographer who has been able to enter into several communities and cultures.

Janina Neumann (00:32):
Mary, how are you?

Mary Humphrey (00:36):
Oh, hello, Janina. How are you?

Janina Neumann (00:37):
Oh, I’m very well, thank you. But what about yourself?

Mary Humphrey (00:42):
Oh, I am actually very well, indeed. I’m enjoying lots of walks and catching up on a lot of bookwork. So I’m taking advantage of having to stay at home all the time, which is very unlike me.

Janina Neumann (00:59):
Yes, I can imagine, especially as we go into more detail about that now.

So tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mary Humphrey (01:07):
Well, Janina, I’m a photographer who embraces challenges and I’m also a collaborative photographer who relishes working with people where relationships are established and maintained. My camera has given me the privilege and has enabled me to meet diverse sections of the community.

Mary Humphrey (01:31):
And for me, meeting them is a privilege, but an integral part of being an effective photographer has been learning and obtaining an understanding of issues, which has surrounded, and still surround, my subjects. Now, this challenging process has made a huge impact, both on my development as a photographer, but also as a person.

Mary Humphrey (02:01):
Now, how did I start photography? Well, I am actually a retired school teacher and educationist, so I enjoyed a fulfilling and successful career in the world of teaching and education, both in England and in the States. My interest in photography was actually ignited whilst living in California. And this was to give information, show information, to my children at home who had all embarked on their own careers to give them an indication of the lifestyle and our different way of life.

Mary Humphrey (02:44):
However, my formal photography education was started at the College of San Mateo, which resulted in my love for the darkroom and also resulted in me being invited to join the fraternity of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

Janina Neumann (03:04):
Oh wow.

Mary Humphrey (03:04):
I continued my photographic development as a student at the Cambridge School of Art. And my objective as a photographer was to collaborate with those whose stories are neglected. And my intention was and still is, to stimulate discussion and questions within the frame and also outside the frame about those who I photograph.

Mary Humphrey (03:32):
My photography blurs between portraiture and reportage. So this enables me to work with my objectives. Now, engaging with different audiences. First of all, I have to say that I actually went to 13 schools. I wasn’t thrown out of any.

Janina Neumann (03:59):
Oh wow.

Mary Humphrey (03:59):
It was because my father was in the RAF and I traveled around with my mum and dad. So, that actually gave me the background and I have always found being with people of all ages stimulating and rewarding. And as a consequence, I have found working with and photographing adults and children to be a very natural activity. And this is also comes back from my background in teaching.

Mary Humphrey (04:35):
So how have I learned about the different people I photograph? Well, I took every opportunity to learn about the people I photograph. Having met them, I read about them, I talked to them, I interviewed them, and this has led to my involvement with travelers and gypsies in this country. And having learned the background and the more I meet them, the more I learn about various groups, I have been able to, with empathy, capture the plight of often disenfranchised groups, including the Roma communities in Transylvania, Cyprus, Moldova, Jerusalem, Bratislava, and Istanbul. So I’ve been, as you can see, I have been really, really, really fortunate to have all these opportunities.

Mary Humphrey (05:39):
And my foreign projects encompass other invisible communities and allowed me to learn about different cultures. So I was able to photograph and interview within Muslim communities. I would then photograph, interview, and learned a lot about people within the transgender spectrum. And I photographed those who care for children and children in Pakistan schools and Cambodian charitable organisations.

Janina Neumann (06:21):
Wow. There’s so much experience there.

So tell us a little bit more about your first journey going into 13 different schools, like where were they located?

Mary Humphrey (06:34):
Abroad. So, I mean, my geography lessons were all practical because I lived in the various countries. So again, Cyprus, Singapore, Northern Ireland, actually, and Aiden, I’m just trying to think now… And the thing is because when we came from abroad, we then had to go into transit, which would mean that I went into transit schools. I just had to learn… And often I only went into schools for maybe a few months, but I had to learn to mix with people, to come in halfway in the year, and to mix with different groups and then leave them and then mix again.

Janina Neumann (07:19):
Oh, wow. That’s a huge change, but also I can see how you’ve adapted those skills into your photography as well.

Mary Humphrey (07:27):
Yes. Yes.

Janina Neumann (07:27):

Because the way you connect with different cultures is fantastic and building trust with them. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Mary Humphrey (07:36):
Well, actually, that’s very, very interesting point, Janina. People ask me about the boundaries that exist. Do they exist? What boundaries do exist? And it’s very important that trust and respect is realised. And when trust and respect is realised on both sides, these boundaries melt away. What’s been really important, Janina has been the fact that I have never, ever gone in with any form of judgment at all. So I’ve always gone in wanting to learn and questions if I’ve asked questions. Sometimes when I worked with the gypsies and travelers, I didn’t ask questions because there was a very fine line of them trusting me and seeing me as someone who is intruding.

Mary Humphrey (08:40):
But once I gained their trust, I gained a lot of knowledge from them. They opened up to me and, I mean, for example, one of the cultures is that if you walk into a room and there are men in the room and a woman walks in, at the time… and I’m talking about this, about 12 years ago, men would sometimes just walk out. But after a while, they got to trust me and they allowed me to photograph them and talk to them. So it is about building respect then realising that you have integrity as a person and as a photographer.

Janina Neumann (09:30):
Wow, that’s really powerful because also I can imagine anyone can become quite camera shy when it’s being pointed at them, but also kind of the intent of why you want to photograph them, I can imagine is so important as well.

Mary Humphrey (09:44):
That is very important. So, if I go back to those when I first started… And I’ll start with the gypsies and the travelers, because first of all, to find them, people might know, oh, there’s a group of gypsies over there… But it’s actually quite difficult to actually travel to their encampments. So what I did is I went in… Well, tried to introduce myself. And I went there three times without my camera. And I went around walking, talking. They were very, very suspicious of me. I mean, what’s this middle-aged, middle-class woman wanting to talk to us? And also it’s out of their experience that I was still in education because this was when I was… This was for my BA project. But the interesting part about this was that when I took my work, the work that I was doing in college, my contextual work, and also my sketchbooks to show my work that I do in college. And they then actually started to understand what I was doing.

Mary Humphrey (11:13):
The other thing is I always, always, first thing, I always get permission to photograph people. I never ever throw a camera in anybody’s face. And secondly, I always give them a copy of the photograph. And that builds up. When people see that… Once you start, people will say, “Oh, Mary, you may be interested in this. You may be interested in that. There’s something going on here.” And it builds up. So it is all about trust and relationships. And that comes out in the photographs because when I photographed… I have photographed at Manchester at Sparkles, and I photographed the people, the trans people, there. My photographs there are not as impactful as a photograph of when I actually know people.

Janina Neumann (12:11):
Yes, I can imagine. And also I find it really interesting what you said about permission to photograph, because I’ve seen when I go on holiday to other countries, sometimes people take pictures without permission of someone who’s probably dressed in a like traditional way. And they take the picture and then they’re surprised of why that person would be annoyed at them while they haven’t asked their permission.

Mary Humphrey (12:40):
Yeah. Well, I mean, that is exactly my ethos. I mean, people say, “Well, how do you get people to say yes when you can’t speak their language?” I’d say, “Do you know a smile, a thumbs up? I’m pointing at the camera, says everything”. And they either say, “Yes”… and I joke with them and try and get them to relax. Or if they say, no, I put my hand on my heart and I say, “Thank you”, in their language. And this has paid dividends, absolute dividends. Because often when people have said no to me, and then they see me photographing other people, they then reverted and come back to me and asked me to photograph them.

Janina Neumann (13:32):

And also you previously mentioned in our conversations, the gesture of giving them a copy of the photograph, I find it really interesting the reason why you do that. Would you like to tell us about that?

Mary Humphrey (13:45):
Well, then, again, I’m going to go back to my time I went to Transylvania. I was offered a travel scholarship to photograph the Romas in Transylvania. And I noticed that this community I went to were super, super poor. I mean, I felt as though I was walking into the dark ages, into their homes, and I noticed they didn’t have any mirrors.

Janina Neumann (14:16):

Mary Humphrey (14:16):
And I realised they don’t know what they look like. I mean, I think that the only way they can see what they look like is through reflections. And possibly reflections in the water when they used to go and wash their clothes in the river. So for that reason. And then I took two cameras, I took a Hasselblad where I did my formal portraitures, and then I took a little digital and I just took loads and loads of photographs. And every single photograph I took, I returned, I sent back. So they at least had a record of what they look like.

Janina Neumann (14:57):
Oh wow. The things that we take for granted is amazing.

Mary Humphrey (14:59):

Janina Neumann (15:01):

So how has your work impacted on your life?

Mary Humphrey (15:06):
It’s made a huge impact on me, Janina. First of all, as I’ve said, I’ve learnt a lot. And also that recognise people as individuals and not group them together. But more importantly, what has made an impact is not on myself, but those who I meet. When I talk about my work, I get very passionate and about the people I photograph and I pass on this information, the things that I’ve learned. And this has been very true of all three major projects. People say, “Well, I didn’t realise that”. And they start looking at people, as I said, as individuals.

Mary Humphrey (15:53):
So I’m much more tolerant to those who I pass in the street now. I don’t just ignore them. I may start thinking, what are they like? Are they nice people? What their backgrounds are. But it’s also, it’s the impact that I’ve made on other people that has been really profound.

Janina Neumann (16:21):
Wow. Yeah, I can imagine. And just thinking about your work with transgender people, I can imagine that recognising them as individuals has been so important with them as well.

Mary Humphrey (16:34):
Well, that’s a really good point that you really picked up. You see, when I first started my project with transgender, I envisage taking one person and go through their lifestyle and their development. I ended up photographing and interviewing lots of different people within the spectrum of transgender and every single person had a single different story. But the one thing that was very, very noticeable, there was a thread that unified all of the trans people. There was a common thread, despite the different stories. And that was a huge eye-opener for me.

Janina Neumann (17:36):

So tell us a little bit more about that common thread.

Mary Humphrey (17:41):
Well, the common thread is… Now, so the people, most of the people I photograph where either within marriages or out of marriages or had been divorced. They were the elder section. But the thing that struck me was the shame that they felt that they had to hide. Now, again, I’m talking about several years ago when transgender was not so visible. I used to meet a group of people who used to scuttle into a boat on the River Cam, and meet and talk to each other, and obviously have things in common. Then they’d scuttle out. And also having to hide what they really wanted to be. I actually found photographing trans people, the easiest shoot I have undertaken because everyone I photographed wanted the photographs to validate who they wanted to be.

Mary Humphrey (19:10):
It was very interesting. And also, talking about this particular group of people, trans people, they had to move to a pub because the boat was no longer available. And it’s interesting when we first went into the pub, again, they would scuttle in, go upstairs, get changed, come down. And I would sit to them, talk to them and socialise with them. And as the weeks progressed, the other people in the pub, stopped nudging.

Mary Humphrey (19:49):
And the group of people stopped being a group of interest. And as the weeks went on, they then became natural clientele, the same as everybody else. It just became. They were accepted for what they want. And gradually I could see that people, once they know and they’re not frightened, that they will actually be kinder and want to learn more.

Janina Neumann (20:25):
Wow. That’s a really important lesson. And yeah, being frightened of things, I think that’s where most problems stem from, it’s fear. Fear of certain communities that you don’t understand rather than all the things that they perhaps did to you. It’s not necessarily the experience of actually interacting with someone.

Mary Humphrey (20:48):
Yes. I’ve actually had more conflict with people within the settled community than I have had in the more diverse communities that I’ve encountered. And somebody was really… In fact, this person was a policeman and he… Well, I won’t say any more about that. But he really, really attacked me for photographing the gypsies and travelers in the area. I said, “I have experienced nothing but kindness, nothing but kindness from them”. I mean, there was one incident that I went onto a site and I left my car, my driver’s car door, open and I went to talk to some people. And there were lots of men around it. It was in the summer and it was quite late. And in that car, I had £3,000 worth of camera equipment. I came back an hour later and the car door was still open, and my camera equipment was still there. Now, the chances are, if that’d been in a car park in Cambridge, I don’t think I would have been as lucky. So don’t judge everybody with the same paintbrush. I was often asked, “Don’t you feel frightened about going into various communities?” I said, “I only feel frightened when people like you ask me that question”.

Janina Neumann (22:35):
Wow. Yeah. That’s really important to reflect on that.

Mary Humphrey (22:40):

Janina Neumann (22:40):
I’m also just interested to find out more about, you know, I look at your beautiful photographs of Muslim women, and often people find their head coverings a barrier, but you bring out their personality, which I find so lovely. So tell us a little bit more about that work.

Mary Humphrey (22:58):
Oh, well that work, again, it was quite difficult. There were boundaries, but with tenacity, with goodwill, and respecting their culture. Where I came across the barriers, often it was because of the traditions within their culture. Often ladies would say to me, “Oh, yes”. They’d be happy to be photographed, but when they either didn’t turn up or they let me know because the menfolk were very protective towards them. So, I just accepted that. And I just carried on. Every time I met anybody in the street, I would shake their hand, give them my business card, explain a little bit about what I was doing. And my actual project, I photographed each person at different angles so that when I produce my exhibition, people were forced to look at the different women in different angles.

Mary Humphrey (24:16):
And this I hoped would encourage them to look at Muslim ladies or even other people. Try to investigate within their own mind about trying to find out and inquire a little bit more about them. From the Muslim community I actually continued working with them. I went to Pakistan with a family and photographed over there, but also I photographed events in this country. Prenuptials, nuptials at a wedding and the different festivals. And again, I keep finding myself in situations where A) I have a different background, and yet I’ve always been accepted. Another time, if I’m not boring you, another time I went to a travelers home community, a little girl was making her first heard of communion. And after I photographed them in mass, I then went to the celebrations and as traditionally, the women are one side and the men are by the bar on the other side. And I, without any intimidation, I was allowed to walk between the men, between the women to go to the children. And I stood out like a sore thumb, but I was never, ever intimidated and I was shown huge courtesy.

Janina Neumann (26:14):
Wow. I think that’s really powerful to hear that. And we’ve all been in those situations where we’ve been actually thinking about, wow, they’ve actually accepted me. And yet they probably have so many experiences of not being accepted.

Mary Humphrey (26:34):
Oh, yes. Yes. I mean, some of the stories I’ve heard, I used to get quite angry. I used to say, “Aren’t you angry?” And they said, “No, we just have to accept it”. And one of the things that I noticed because I went to… Three years running, I went to the pilgrimage, to the travelers’ pilgrimage, at Walsingham. And they faced a lot of trouble. And what I saw was that people from the settled community antagonised and the travelers would retaliate and then it would build up and so trouble would occur.

Mary Humphrey (27:29):
And I just felt if people could just get to know people more and to take the time to know each other. I mean, I was told by one lady, who frightened me, really frightened me when I first met her, said, “Listen, love, because we would never, never harm you. We would always protect you”. And they would feel that about other people, not just me. Again, it is actually meeting. I keep emphasising this, don’t I? Yes. It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of hard work and a lot of disappointments, I might add. But being tenacious has also been very important.

Janina Neumann (28:15):
Yeah. I think that’s really powerful.

And on that caring for others, tell us a little bit more about the work that you did in Cambodia, ‘Those That Care’.

Mary Humphrey (28:26):
Even thinking about it, I’ve got goosebumps. That was amazing. So what happened there? I had to look for another project for my final MA. And I’ve been to Pakistan and I’d photograph the children in schools and in villages and various organisations. And I suddenly thought, well, do you know, nobody photographs the people who look after them and they have stories as well. So I thought about it and I decided I’d like to go to Cambodia because there’s a lot, a lot of history there. And a lot of corruption there as regards to children. So through the Catholic church, I met people, I contacted people. And I had an itinerary. My husband and I, we went together, and I had an itinerary and we traveled to several places.

Mary Humphrey (29:42):
And it was very interesting that when we were there, again, people saw that I was photographing. And saw how I photographed and how I interacted. And then they would encourage me to go to other places and to meet the people. And one of these places I went to was actually, I photographed people who lived on rubbish sites. And that was incredible because nobody would go on there. We were with a driver, and he stopped so far, he wouldn’t come with me. And the people who came with me, they stopped so far, they wouldn’t come anywhere near. And the minute I smiled at these people, their eyes and their hearts just lit up. And here was I, going on a rubbish site with people who could have easily have turned around on me. And they didn’t. They just got on with their job. And again, I asked if I could photograph and they were very, very generous and they allowed me to.

Janina Neumann (30:55):
Oh, wow.

So what do you think was the barrier in people not coming with you?

Mary Humphrey (31:03):
It’s interesting that, isn’t it? They were frightened. They were just frightened. And these are people who lived there. I mean, my husband came with me, but he tends to step back because… at my request, because I feel that people view me as less of a threat because the fact I am of my age and because I am an elderly person and also, and I think it’s because I’m a woman. I don’t mean to be rude about that, but people tend to walk quite easily… tended. I mean, there are men who photograph… but I found that’s been to my advantage.

Janina Neumann (32:01):
Oh, wow.

Mary Humphrey (32:01):
And also, there are enormous differences between cultures. There’s no doubt about that. There are differences. But diversity also exists within the separate cultures. And again, I’m going to say it again, by promoting information, understanding, and knowledge, individuals become individuals. We can move away from stereotypes. And we can just move away from stereotypes and start looking at people as individuals. And information about traditions and ethos and backgrounds certainly promote understanding of the different cultures and help to melt away barriers. So I want my photograph to continue telling stories that need to be told and understood. And as I said, meeting and collaborating with the variety of subjects, I just feel that we’re all part of a powerful patchwork quilt. And sometimes we actually tessellate, and sometimes we need to work towards the tessellation.

Janina Neumann (33:27):
Wow. I love that. That’s really powerful. Yeah, actually we are like a patchwork.

Mary Humphrey (33:34):
We are. Yes. When I was at school, I did an assembly. I used to be head of the pre-prep and lower school of a school in Cambridge. And I did an assembly with my tutor group. And they all came in in dustbin bags and they all had the same uniform. And the assembly was about how more interesting and more colourful it is when we have a cocktail of different colours and different fruit. And they took off their bin bags, and they showed all their colourful clothes. And I parallel that to society. That we’ve all got different colours, but we’re all very important to each other. And it’s the same with a fruit salad. A fruit on its own is very nice, but you get a fruit salad mixed together with all the different fruits, and that enhances the taste. And again, parallel to society. You can tell I’m a teacher, can’t you?

Janina Neumann (34:47):
They’re really powerful messages. I love them because sometimes it’s so hard to articulate how we all feel. So that’s really good.

Mary Humphrey (34:57):
Yes. Yes.

Janina Neumann (34:59):
Well, fantastic, Mary. It’s been so good to learn about all these communities.

Are there any other communities that you’d like to share with us?

Mary Humphrey (35:07):
Oh, yes. I’ve been really, really lucky to be involved with LGBT advocates and within the groups in London. Also, I’ve been heavily involved with the liberal Jewish groups in London again. People have been very kind and have asked me to photograph at conferences and demonstrations and symposiums. And I’ve learned such a lot. Yes. Yeah. I’ve been very lucky.

Janina Neumann (35:42):

Is there a particular story you’d like to share with us with working in those communities?

Mary Humphrey (35:49):
Well, there’s one story. Yes. I went to Amsterdam and I photographed at a conference there, which was celebrating trans people. And I ended up being part of the Canal Gay Parade. And I was actually on the boat going through Amsterdam with all these thousands of people. I was photographing people, photographing the people on the boat, who were gay or trans. And I actually stopped for a minute and I looked at myself and here was I, a Catholic middle-class, middle-aged and straight, having this amazing experience and sharing their experiences with my camera and with me. And it was tremendous.

Janina Neumann (37:05):
Wow. I can imagine. And also in that moment to reflect on where you actually are, but also to reflect on what you’ve achieved, you know, how you are as a person and how you deliver your work is fantastic.

Mary Humphrey (37:18):
Thank you. Now, I will say this, which is very important. I have been incredibly lucky. People have been incredibly generous throughout.

Janina Neumann (37:33):
Oh, that’s a really nice sentiment as well, to see how it can work both ways of connecting.

So if people loved listening to you, Mary, how can they connect and work with you?

Mary Humphrey (37:49):
Oh, I’d love to work with people. Yes. My website, which is

Janina Neumann (38:00):
Oh, fantastic, Mary. It’s been so good to talk to you. And I loved learning about these communities, but also about how photography has been a medium for you to communicate those really important messages that we all need to take on in our individual lives. Thank you so much for being here.

Mary Humphrey (38:26):
Thank you. Thank you for offering me this opportunity. Thank you very much.

Janina Neumann (38:31):
Very welcome. Thank you, Mary.

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